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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Corey Kluber

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Corey Kluber has combined for 36.2 innings over the last two seasons, but the Yankees are hoping that he can rediscover the form that made him a two-time Cy Young winner in Cleveland.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-2020 offseason was a big one for starting pitching. In addition to two aces hitting the free agent market in Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, a two-time Cy Young Award winner in Corey Kluber was on the trade block. Sure, Kluber had a rough 2019 season, posting a 5.80 ERA (4.06 FIP) in seven starts — highlighted by him missing most of the season with an arm fracture and abdominal tightness — but he was one season removed from his third straight top-three finish in the Cy Young voting.

In one of the rare lose-lose trades, Cleveland flipped him for Delino DeShields Jr. and Emmanuel Clase: Kluber would suffer a torn teres major muscle, ending his season after just one inning, DeSheilds Jr. would be non-tendered following the season, and Clase received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for PEDs. All that, however, is in the past: will Texas’s bad fortune become the Yankees’ treasure?

2020 Stats: 1 GS, 1.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 9.0 K/9, 9.0 BB/9, 1.000 WHIP, 0.1 bWAR, 0.0 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 26 GS, 155 IP, 4.03 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 9.08 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 1.21 WHIP, 2.9 fWAR

Aside from wondering how Baseball-Reference measures Wins Above Replacement in such a way that you can generate one-tenth of a win in only one inning (albeit a scoreless one), there’s really not that much to talk about looking at Kluber’s 2020 performance. It’s similarly difficult to talk about those projections. While, to me, they seem like a reasonably conservative estimate for Kluber’s performance (and projections always err on the side of being too conservative), it’s hard to talk about what a pitcher of Kluber’s caliber might look like after essentially missing two full seasons.

Only a handful of pitchers have missed all of or most of two straight seasons. Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Hampton were bad pitchers upon their return (both posted an ERA above 5.00 afterwards), but they were not exactly in the same tier as Kluber. Zack Wheeler, who missed the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, profiles closer to Kluber, and he has returned to being a top-of-the-rotation starter. However, his age (he missed his age-25 and -26 seasons) means that he serves as a better comp for Luis Severino (who will have missed most of his age-25 and -26 seasons) than for Kluber (who missed most of his age-33 and age-34 seasons).

In this case, the best comparison would be probably be Chris Carpenter, who won the 2005 NL Cy Young Award, was third in the voting in 2006, and then combined for 21.1 innings over the next two seasons. When he returned, however, he picked up right where he left off, posting a league-leading 2.24 ERA (2.78 FIP), finishing second in the Cy Young voting to Tim Lincecum.

There’s precedent for a former elite veteran to return to dominance after two lost seasons. Does that mean that Kluber will? The answer to that is...maybe? As I wrote about in our free agent target post back in December, Kluber wasn’t exactly his dominant self early in the 2019 season, but he still had an above-average spin rate on his fastball — and in truth, he’s never been a power-pitcher anyway, as his fastball has sat in the 92-93 mph range for most of his career. It’s his slider/curveball/whatever-you-want-to-call-it breaking ball that has been the center of his success. For what it’s worth, David Cone has liked what he has seen so far, saying in an interview with NJ.com, “He’s not babying it. He’s not being tentative. It’s like he’s got confidence in his stuff because it’s snapping again.”

The Yankees surely hope that continues to be the case, as a Cy Young-level performance from Kluber would certainly give the Yankees one of the best one-two punches at the top of the rotation in baseball. Time will tell if their faith is misplaced.